Ebola's economic impact hits Sierra Leone citizens

As the World Bank predicts billions of dollars could be drained from Ebola-affected countries by the end of next year, IRIN spoke to Freetown residents to gauge how the crisis was affecting their lives.

All sectors of the economy have been affected, with agriculture worst off, say analysts.

Crops in eastern Sierra Leone's agricultural zone remain un-harvested as Ebola-hit farmers stay away - either too sick, dead, in enforced quarantine, or unable to get labour to do the job. Ebola hit Sierra Leone at the peak of its cocoa and rice harvesting season and the impact is likely to be significant, says the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Those who were able to harvest have trouble getting their goods to market with multiple road blocks between Kailahun, Kenema, and the capital Freetown, and transporters staying away.

As a result, market prices for staple goods are up. Rice has risen from 32 US cents a kilo, to 36 cents, and the price of common fruits and vegetables has more or less doubled in Freetown's Salad Ground Market, said vegetable seller Bintu Kamara. But in any case, customers are scarce: "Most of my usual customers have stopped coming out as they are afraid. Some have left the country. Hotels, guest-house and restaurant customers aren't buying in large quantities as they have fewer customers now," she told IRIN.

Agriculture makes up half of Sierra Leone's GDP and employs two thirds of the country's workforce, according to the Agricultural Ministry, which estimates Ebola's economic impact thus far will be a 30 percent GDP drop. Ebola-hit areas produced some of Sierra Leone's principal cash crops: coffee, cocoa, rice and cassava.

Commercial truck drivers in Freetown sit around idle in what is usually their busiest season. Truck driver Lamine Ngheba, told IRIN: "We cannot go into Kenema or other seriously affected Ebola towns.. so our work has dwindled to next to nothing."

Trade has also plummeted between Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, with military-enforced border closures, though it is still possible to cross the border on small roads in the forest. Kenema is usually a major transit hub for people and goods moving from the capital Freetown, to Kailahun in the far east.

Thus far there have not been widespread shortages of the staple rice, said Alimamy Bangura of the Finance Ministry's Economic Policy and Research Unit, though there are fears that long-term border closures could lead to dwindling stocks and panic buying.

Beyond agriculture

But the economic impact is being felt far beyond the agricultural sector, as international investors and multinationals scale back, construction grinds to a halt, and the service and transport sectors slow down, all of which erode government revenues. Iron ore mining company Optia, mineral sands company Sierra Rutile and diamond mining company Koidu Holdings have all significantly scaled back operations, according to the Finance Ministry's Economic Policy and Research Unit. The government has had to boost expenditure: It is channelling US$13.7 million to the Ebola fight amid a shrinking budget, said Bangura.

Most road building has been suspended affecting mostly youths on basic wages, said Bangura. Mabinty Kanu, wife of Mohamed Kanu, who used to work for a Senegalese construction company active in Sierra Leone, told IRIN her husband used to bring home US$150 per month but he was recently laid off due to lack of work. To keep the family going she sells cooked rice and sauce by the side of the road.

Major Airlines, including British Airways, Arik Air, ASKY, Kenya Airways and Emirates, have collectively cancelled 70 flights to Sierra Leone, further eroding the economy. This is despite repeated calls by the World Health Organization (WHO) to keep borders and transport routes open for fear of isolating affected zones, which increases fear levels and disrupts help. Hotels, restaurants and bars have laid off at least 24,000 people as they run minimal services, estimated Bangura.

Mohamed Lamin Sesay, owner of the small Hotel Mariam in the Aberdeen neighbourhood, said after having no customers for months, he had to shut down the hotel altogether, laying off all the staff.

The effect on people's lives is devastating in one of the world's poorest countries, where the UN Development Programme estimates 60 percent of citizens live on less than $1.25 per day and where youth unemployment rates are 70 percent.

Sierra Leone ranks 180th out of 187 countries on the UN's Human Development Index though the country had been making considerable economic and human development progress since the civil war ended in 2002.

Many have pointed to ways in which Ebola is tearing at the social fabric of the affected countries - encouraging neighbours to shun one another and stigmatizing victims, the families of victims, or those involved in the Ebola fight. There is mounting distrust and rumour-mongering amid widespread fear. Simply by making it difficult or dangerous for groups of people to convene in public, it poses a danger to the social order, say Freetown residents. Cinemas, stadiums, neighbourhood football pitches where crowds usually gather are nearly empty across the capital.

Health sector

Meanwhile, the disease is ravaging Sierra Leone's health infrastructure: in a country with just two doctors per 100,000 residents, four of its doctors have now died from the disease, the latest Dr Olivet Buck on 15 September, who died amid prolonged negotiations as to how to pay for her medical evacuation.

NGO Médecins Sans Frontières is running a 62-bed treatment centre in Kailahun while treatment centres in Kenema are run by the government and the International Federation of the Red Cross. Some 165 Cuban doctors will soon head to Sierra Leone to support treatment and prevention efforts. China is sending 59 laboratory inspectors to help with surveillance. The UK government has channelled US$40 million to Sierra Leone including supporting a 62-bed treatment centre to be up and running in a few weeks, while the Gates Foundation has provided US$50 million.

The World Bank, which is channelling $230 million to shore up health systems and support disease surveillance in affected countries, says under the worst-case scenario, economic growth next year could be reduced by 2.3 percent in Guinea, 8.9 percent in Sierra Leone, and 11.7 percent in Liberia.

Eleven of Sierra Leone's 12 districts have confirmed Ebola cases, according to the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, with a total of 1,620 cases and 562 deaths as of 13 September.

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